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SHAFT (2000) **1/2 movie review by COOP

Posted on May 14th, 2008
Posted on May 14th, 2008

Shaft is back. It’s been 29 years since the original film debuted. Followed by two sequels, “Shaft’s Big Score” and “Shaft in Africa”, plus a short-lived TV series, “Shaft” became a groundbreaking phenomenon. Now Hollywood intends to create a new Shaft franchise with this sequel/remake, but the filmmakers may have to update it a bit for more next “Shaft” movie.

The 1971 “Shaft” kicked off what came to be known as the “Blaxploitation” genre. This category of African-American themed movies produced such classics as “Superfly”, “Blackula”, “Foxy Brown” and hundreds of others. Featured in inner-city “grindhouse” theaters that specifically catered to the black neighborhoods, the genre peaked in the 70’s and eventually died out in the early 80’s. Its spirit still stays alive through homages in films, such as “Pulp Fiction”, “A Vampire in Brooklyn” and the hilarious spoof, “I’m Gonna Get You Sucka”. However, with Samuel L. Jackson talking about doing another “Shaft” film, we could see a surge of future blaxploitation remakes and a possible (but unlikely) genre comeback.

The film starts as Detective John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) arrives at a crime scene where a young black man was brutally murdered by a racist, white rich kid, Walter Williams (Christian Bale). Shaft gets kicked off the force for assaulting Williams, who in turn jumps bail and heads for Switzerland. Years later, Shaft catches Williams sneaking back into the country and jails him with Puerto Rican ganglord, Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright). Williams employs Hernandez to kill the only witness that can finger him as a murderer, a waitress on the run played by Toni Colette. Shaft attempts to protect the witness, while taking down the bad guys.

Jackson plays Shaft competently and in the spirit of the original movie. The only thing that didn’t ring true was the fact that Shaft never really had a love interest in this film. Vanessa L. Williams plays Shaft’s partner but never seems to develop their relationship past a brief kiss. Frankly, her character and talent was wasted, as is Toni Colette as the witness on the run. Christian Bale reprises his role from “American Psycho” for this film, although here he comes across as a little more naïve and less psychotic. Otherwise his performance is near to identical.

Director John Singleton knows his way around African-American themes in film. The acclaimed director made a name for himself with the excellent hit “Boyz in the Hood”. After that, he received lukewarm response from his next films, “Poetic Justice”, “Higher Learning” and “Rosewood”. Singleton does capture the feel of the blaxploitation film and only welches on one aspect… No sex scenes. I suspect this was rather the doing of studio execs that allegedly claimed that Jackson had no “sex appeal”. Whether he does or not, blaxploitation isn’t exploitation without the sex. I imagine they will rethink that idea for the next “Shaft” film.

In Hollywood, exploitation refers to films that have no socially redeeming value except for (arguably) raw entertainment. This is the ideal that blaxploitation was founded upon; although, it did more than that. It created a creative outlet for a new generation of African-American filmmakers and changed Hollywood film forever. The new “Shaft” is just as politically incorrect as its predecessor, but that’s not the point. It’s actually a valid part of entertainment history and “Shaft” is a faithful adaptation.

Having said all of that, the film itself isn’t all that great. It still has the feel of a 1970’s film with little to show that the world has progressed into the year 2000, thus perpetuating my theory that this film is indeed a sequel. Much of the acting talent is wasted and the film never rises to the occasion. Instead of caving into terminal political correctness as the “James Bond” franchise has, this film does the extreme opposite. Although the filmmakers claimed to have updated “Shaft” for the year 2000, I didn’t see it… They didn’t even change the music track.

The film opens with shots of Sam Jackson posing for the camera and flashes of naked, black females, yet there is no other nudity or sex in the film. Lots of profanity and violent assassination make up for that loss, so children should definitely be discouraged from viewing “Shaft”. Dates will find it an adequate popcorn movie, but the intellectual audience will find nothing to stimulate them… unless they are “Blaxploitation” aficionados.

Scale of 1-5:
2 ½

Most refreshing aspect of the film:
Jeffrey Wright as Puerto Rican gangster, Peoples Hernandez. His scenes with Christian Bale mark the highlights of the film and gave actual depth to a character intended to be a cartoonish, stereotype. Wright received acclaim for his portrayal of a tortured artist in the independent film “Basquiat”. Perhaps “Shaft” will help him land more juicy roles.

Biggest gripe:
The music. I love Isaac Hayes’s original 1971, Academy Award-winning soundtrack from the original “Shaft” film. I own it and listen to it for its camp-value, but in this film it sounds overplayed and ostentatious. The music NEVER STOPS and grates on your nerves as you try to get into the story. Perhaps if they had toned it down and turned down the volume, it might have worked. Also, Sam Jackson’s line, “It’s my duty to please that booty” evoked “boos” and popcorn-throwing from the audience. Add these to the list of list of things the filmmakers claimed they updated, yet didn’t.

Biggest surprise:
That this is not a remake. The original Shaft, Richard Roundtree, returns as Jackson’s uncle, his appearances are brief and his character’s name is never mentioned. Perhaps this alludes to the idea that he is actually the original John Shaft from 1971 and Jackson is his legacy. The filmmakers probably avoided mentioning this fact because that would technically make this film a sequel and not a remake.

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